E-Reading Application Showdown, Part 2: Typography

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India AmosBy India Amos, Textist | @indiamos

Ed note: For part one of this ongoing series on eReader applications and their rendering of ebooks across devices, click here for more on annotations in Kobo, Google, Apple, Nook, and Kindle. For more on Ebook Design & Formatting, join Peter Meyers and Anne Kostick on Thursday, August 4th at 1 PM ET for an interactive review of ebooks across platforms.

When I first decided to try reading an e-book on my iPod Touch, I assumed—since I’ve been designing and typesetting book interiors for more than a decade and have strong opinions about what makes text readable and appealing—that poor typography would be my biggest complaint about the e-reading applications I tried. It turns out that as with print books, I’m much more tolerant of ugly, poorly set text than I expected. Just as I’m capable of losing myself in the pages of a cramped, blurry mass-market paperback if the story is one I want to read, so, too, can I block out consciousness of the less-than-ideal typography of an e-book viewed on a small screen. In fact, though I haven’t tried to empirically test this theory, I believe I might read novels faster on my iPod than I used to do on paper. Or maybe I comprehend better, or remember more of what I read.

Still, I’d rather have the option of making the text look good, and if an e-book’s appearance seriously offends me, I’m batty enough to crack it open and change it. I now actually get paid to do this, which sometimes feels like I’ve hit upon the best scam ever. (Other times, not so much. See below under anchovies.)

As any text designer can tell you, there are entire degree programs, conferences, and libraries of books on the subject of typography. So I won’t try to explain the whats, hows, and whys in a late-night blog post; but take my word for it that in good print design, there is a balance between several elements, including but not limited to

  • typeface style (serif or sans serif? old style, transitional, modern, Clarendon? geometric, gothic, grotesque?)
  • type size (which, as you know if you’ve ever fooled around with typefaces when trying to hit a certain page count on a term paper, is about more than just point size)
  • leading—the amount of space between lines of type
  • measure—the width of the block of text
  • alignment—is the text
    • centered, as in section headings and some truly terrible books of poetry?
    • fully justified, with the spaces between words squeezed or expanded so that they form a solid, sharp-edged text block?
    • rag right, aka left-justified?
    • rag left, aka right-justified—extremely rare in book-length texts but sometimes seen in advertising, to make things line up in a pretty but hard-to-read way?
  • word spacing
  • letter spacing
  • margins

A print designer can also control whether and how words are hyphenated (for example, I don’t like to see a two-letter fragment before or after a hyphen; it’s ugly and, I feel, more likely to lead to misreading, so I always set hyphenation tools to keep a minimum of three letters on either side of a break), as well as when and how deeply the first lines of paragraphs are indented (for instance, we usually don’t indent the first line beneath a heading, because it’s already obvious that a new paragraph has started).

So how much of this can an e-book designer control?

Consistently across all platforms? Pretty much nothing.

You can present serving suggestions, as it were, but you cannot plate the dish. Some e-reading devices and software automatically add ketchup (if not freaking anchovies) to everything, some serve everything up on divided styrofoam plates, and the reader can nearly always at least add salt.

Welcome to the dark side of my job.

Still, whether it makes me sometimes want to fork my eyes out or not, I promised you a rundown of typographic options in an assortment of e-reading applications, so that is what you will get.

Picking the fonts

When layfolk think of typography at all, what they usually think of is picking the fonts. Fonts are fun. Who among us didn’t sit there trying out all those goofy typefaces, upon first installing Microsoft Word? (What? You are too young to remember life before Word? Sorry, I can’t hear you—let me turn my hearing aid up. Squeeeeeeek.) Changing the font changes the way a text feels; it can make the author seem nerdy or cool; it can keep you from getting lost; it can change how you rate a text. Or it can make you throw the book across the room in disgust. But, wait—if you’re reading an e-book, you no longer have to keep your pitching arm limber! You can just change the font. To what?

Kindle.app: 0 fonts

Kobo: 4 fonts

Nook.app: 5 fonts

All displayed in using the same font in the menu, so you’d better know what each one looks like.

iBooks: 6 fonts

Google Books: 7 fonts

Is more better? Not really. I use Georgia most of the time (sometimes Verdana, if I’m reading in night mode); couldn’t care less about the rest. YMMV.

Size matters

One of the big selling points of e-books is that each reader can adjust the size of the text to suit his or her preferences. There’s no longer a need to track down bulky, expensive large-type editions, or to use a magnifier to make conventionally sized text legible; you can just make the type larger, and everything will reflow to fit the screen.

How big is big, though, and how small is small? The following pairs of screenshots show the largest and smallest text in each app.

Google Books

Google Books for iPhone: smallest text size Google Books for iPhone: largest text size

iBooks

iBooks for iPhone: smallest text size iBooks for iPhone: largest text size

Kindle.app

Kindle for iPhone: smallest text size Kindle for iPhone: largest text size

Kobo

Kobo for iPhone: smallest text size Nook for iPhone: largest text size

Nook.app

Nook for iPhone: smallest text size IMG_0823.PNG

Attentive persons will note that the font displayed on the Nook.app is not Georgia, although that’s what I have the app set to use, and “use publisher settings” is off. Go figure.

Leading

Leading (rhymes with “heading”), also known as line spacing or line height, can have a profound effect on readability. Yet of the e-reading apps I’m looking at, only two let you alter this setting: Nook.app gives you four choices, and Google Books gives you three.

Nook for iPhone: Settings Google Books for iPhone: Settings

The screenshots below show the extremes of leading at the smallest and middle font sizes. The leading is proportional to the font size, so as the text gets larger, so does the spacing between the lines.

Nook.app

Leading Nook for iPhone Leading Nook for iPhone
Leading Nook for iPhone Leading Nook for iPhone

Google Books

Leading Google Books for iPhone Leading Google Books for iPhone
Leading Google Books for iPhone Leading Google Books for iPhone

Justification

One of the absolute worst things about typography on e-readers is that most apps, and most publishers, fully justify text by default. On a small screen, with primitive hyphenation algorithms, this is what most often makes me want to stab myself in the eye. At a very small font size, it can look okay—

Full Justification eReader app for iPhone

—but full justification is not appropriate for every part of a book—

Full Justification eReader app for iPhone

—and at large font sizes, it can look like a dog’s breakfast:

Nook.app: Nasty justification

In my opinion, left-justified or rag-right text would be a much safer default, but that wouldn’t fit in with all the stupid “Look! It’s just like a real book!” chrome that software developers seem to think readers want. More on that in a separate episode.

Fortunately, both Kobo and Nook.app let you either force the justification to rag-right or use whatever justification settings the publisher has specified in the file. Unfortunately, neither app shows the publisher’s settings by default.

Kobo.app justification options Nook.app justification options

Margins

Nook.app is alone among those under consideration in letting the reader change the page margins.

Nook.app margin options

Please check your InterWeb Guide to find out when the next exciting installment will air!

India Amos is Digital Production ePub QA Associate for F+W Media. She has been art director for the daily online magazine Nextbook.org (now Tabletmag.com), a book designer at St. Martin’s Press and Neuwirth & Associates, and managing editor of Seven Stories Press. From 1999 to 2001 she was webmaster of poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. In 2008, she entered the Interactive Telecommunications master’s degree program (ITP) at New York University.

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8 thoughts on “E-Reading Application Showdown, Part 2: Typography

  1. What an informative article. This is a great review of a lot more than typography. It must have taken you some time to put this article together. I enjoyed it. So standardisation is not here yet then?

  2. I love that you did such an in-depth comparative study but I don’t understand why you compared the Apple apps of different companies rather than the company’s devices. I bring this up mainly because on an actual Kindle, you can adjust the leading.

    • Thanks, Erin. I focused on iPhone apps because I don’t believe the future of reading is in dedicated devices—I think there’s far too much attention on those already—and because such devices are not what I prefer to read on. I did warn of this bias in the first installment of this series, but I suppose I should have repeated it. :)

      I own a Kobo Touch, and through my job I have access to an iPad, a Kindle, a Nook Color, and an e-ink Nook. And although I’m often lugging one or more of these devices around from a sense of duty, they are not what I want to read on. What I invariably reach for is the gadget that I already have with me at all times, my iPod Touch.

      The iPod Touch is small, lightweight, and does a handful of other useful things that most dedicated e-readers suck at. Even connecting to a wifi network is a chore on most e-readers; on the Kobo, I can’t log into our office network at all. I’m also not a fan of e-ink; it’s too low-contrast for my lousy vision, and for the ill-lit environments in which I habitually whip out a book.

      I am always in the middle of a bunch of books, and I switch between audiobooks and e-books depending on where I am, what’s going on, and whether my hands are free. Sometimes I listen to music while I read e-books, to drown out background noise. For this sort of multitasking, the iPod is perfect. Even an iPad wouldn’t suit me, because it’s too heavy. If I’m going to carry something that large, it’ll be a laptop, on which I can do actual work—InDesign, Photoshop, etc.

      These are very much personal habits and preferences. But I know a ton of people with iPhones and iPods, and I see a lot of other people on the train reading on these devices. And I think most people who are trying out e-books to see if they like them are going to do so on the gadgets they already carry (including full-fledged computers), rather than investing in single-function devices that are tied to particular stores. If they find that preliminary reading experience frustrating and uncomfortable, they’re unlikely to feel driven to drop another hundred or two bucks on the problem to solve it, when they can just go back to buying paper books—used, no less.

      • I definitely agree that the majority of users are going to look at an ebook on what they already have before they buy a device. The most frustrating aspect of e-readers overall is the inconsistency of display between them, despite EPUB standards (can a girl get some ACTUAL css support on a kindle, please? Small caps, anyone?) Some day the world will be an ideal ebook land where there will be a standard upheld and what you see on the device you own is the same across applications… Until then I’m pulling hair by hair out trying to make everyone happy. Le sigh…

  3. You can adjust justification in iBooks as well. In Settings, toggle off Full Justification and Auto-Hyphenation for a MUCH better reading experience that better reflects the publisher’s defaults. Granted, it doesn’t really fix all the issues with justification (you’re still really limited), but it does help somewhat.

    • Thanks, Charleen. I’ve stumbled across those settings before . . . which raises the question: Why are these important options controlled outside the application, in the general iOS settings area?

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